Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Real Commitment

I am finishing my third week of classes at the School of Theology in Sewanee, and, as you can tell, I haven't had much time for writing. It's all I can do to keep up with the readings and coursework. But I trust that the classes I take and the books I read and the conversations I have will have a positive impact on the rest of my work. In particular, this year's program has given me the chance to focus on preaching the Old Testament, and, as we make our way into the season after Pentecost, I am excited to see how that focus will bear fruit.

This coming Sunday, those of us who use Track 1 of the RCL will hear the story of Elijah's departure in 2 Kings 2. It's a dramatic story of how the authority--literally the mantle--of one prophet is passed to his successor. After refusing to abandon his master, Elisha is asked by Elijah what he might do for him. When Elisha asks for a double-portion of his spirit, Elijah confirms that the difficult request will only be accomplished if Elisha is able to stay with him until his departure. Sure enough, after Elisha picks up the mantle that has fallen from the senior prophet, he rolls it up and strikes the river just as his master had done, and the waters part. The spirit, the authority, the commission, the mantle have been passed on.

Each week, the Track 1 readings move through the Old Testament in large chunks, making their way through different sections and allowing congregations to hear extensive passages from the Hebrew scriptures. Track 2, on the other hand, is almost identical to the 1979 BCP lectionary, which itself parallels the older Roman Catholic lectionary, in which Old Testament lessons are paired thematically with Gospel texts. Because we use Track 1, there isn't supposed to be any direct overlap with the gospel reading. Of course, because the themes of salvation history are present in Old and New Testaments, there are always some connections that can be made, but usually they end up sounding forced if made from the pupit or in a blog post. This week, however, something different happens.

In the Gospel lesson, we read Luke 9:51-62, in which Jesus is turned away by the residents of a Samaritan town and then approached by some potential disciples. In both sections, there's an overriding question of what it means to receive Jesus and follow Jesus, which is probably the right theme for a sermon, but there's an explicit overlap with the relationship between Elijah and Elisha that Jesus seems to challenge in his encounter with a would-be follower. "Another said, 'I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.' Jesus said to him, 'No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.'

The point is that Jesus won't even let a farewell to family stand in the way of the urgent call to drop everything and follow him, but those who know their Old Testament better than most of us do would hear an intentional comparison with Elijah's calling of Elisha in 1 Kings 19. In that encounter, Elijah "passed by [Elisha] and threw his mantle over him," a symbol of the recruitment of a disciple. But Elisha's response almost identically mirrors that of the would-be disciple from Luke 9: "Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you." Yet Elijah's response reflects the exact opposite: "Go back again; for what have I done to you?" Moreover, after the farewell is said, Elisha takes the yoke of oxen and slaughters them and, using the equipment, boils them in order to feed the community. (Twelve yoke of oxen is a lot of meat!) A clear example of "putting a hand to the plow and looking back," this action seems to be exactly what Jesus rejects when he refuses the would-be follower the chance to go home and say goodbye to his family.

By the time we get to Elijah's farewell and the passing of the mantle in 2 Kings 2, Elisha has journeyed with his master through some difficult moments. His commitment, exemplified in his refusal to abandon Elijah in his final journey, is unquestioned. Yet Jesus wants us to go even further. There's a danger in preaching Luke 9 as an example that "corrects" or "perfects" what was incomplete or misguided in the Old Testament story--dangerous because it continues to nurture the evil of antisemitism through poor exegesis. Rather, Jesus' teaching to the would-be disciple (and to us) relies on the integrity of the encounter between Elijah and Elisha to explain the seriousness of his own ministry and the call to participate in it. No one questions Elisha's commitment to his master's work. How critical, therefore, must the commitment to Jesus' work be if we aren't even allowed to set our hand to the plow and look back?

As my preaching class has reiterated, one does not need the New Testament to preach an effective sermon on the story of salvation revealed in the Old Testament. But this week, if you're preaching on Luke 9 and the commitment of Jesus' disciples, consider telling the story of Elijah and Elisha--a story of true commitment that Jesus uses as the model for his own ministry. You can't know the story of the prophetic duo and miss the significance of Jesus' demand. Knowing the stories Jesus knew, of course, helps us know Jesus.

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